From St. Louis to California

In 1962 Harold and I were the parents of five children. We were living in St. Louis in a totally white, mostly Catholic section of the city. Patty, Mike, & Sharon were going to a Catholic Parochial School which Peggy and Jim were too young to attend. Most all of the children on our street, and there were a lot of them, were also attending this same school called St. James the Greater.

A school bus would pick them up each day. We lived on a street that had an incline at one end. During snowy, icy weather the bus would pick up the kids at one end of the street but then could not make it up the hill to continue on to school. The children would all get off the bus, come running back home, and not have to go to school that day. It was safe to have the children returned home because none of the mothers had outside jobs. They were all stay-at-home moms. I can't even think of one mother who worked outside the home. It was a different era.

The summers in St. Louis were very hot and muggy (humid) which made the temperature seem much hotter than it was. The winters were cold and sometimes there were snow and ice storms, the ice making thin coats all over the trees, sidewalks, and streets. Harold was a letter-carrier and would come home very tired from carrying mail in the severe weather. He would have metal cleats strapped to the bottom of his shoes so he wouldn't slip on the ice. Other times he wore a long raincoat and rain boots because of the tremendous down pouring rain that came with the many thunder and lightening storms.

With winter came lots of colds, flu, etc. In one particular year it seemed there was someone sick in the house during the whole winter. The children in school would catch the usual childhood illnesses such as measles, chicken pox, and mumps bringing it home to share with the younger ones. One particular winter comes to mind. Patty got chicken pox; two weeks later Mike and Sharon got chicken pox; and you guessed it! Two weeks after that, Peggy and Jim got chicken pox.

Harold and I would watch the Pasadena Rose Parade every New Year's Day and see the people in shirtsleeves standing on sunny streets with beautiful mountains, trees, and flowers in the background. We couldn't help envying the people who lived there in California.

One cold gloomy day Harold was home from work due to sickness, probably the flu. We were discussing how nice it must be to live in a milder climate; such as California. Since I had never been there, this led to my driving to the library to gets some books on California to do a little research. Harold's only visit happened when he traveled under the Golden Gate Bridge on his way home from the war in Korea getting on a train the next day headed back home to St. Louis. After reading all about the different areas of California we picked a general vicinity where we thought we might like to live if we had the chance.

Before we got too serious about this beyond our daydreaming, Harold had a big concern. He expressed it with this statement to me, "You could never leave your mother!". Granted, that would not be easy as my mother was 73. It would be hard for her to accept but she did live next door to my brother Len and his family. I knew they would watch out for her but then again I knew I would miss her very much. My mother was 18 years old when she left Poland and her aging mother. She did it to better her life and the lives of her future children. Wouldn't I be doing the same thing? To soothe my aching conscience, this turned out to be my reasoning on the whole matter.

There was a hunger that started in us to change our living conditions to what we thought would be much better for us and our children. If we did it, we knew we would have to do it soon as Patty, our oldest child, was already nine years old. Children would have an easier time adjusting to the move and loss of old friends if it was done at an early age. They would also be leaving quite a large family of aunts, uncles, cousins, and two grandmothers so it took some deep thought and introspection before a decision was finally made.

We also had to talk to Julia, Harold's mother to see how she felt. She was a divorced widow and working full time but this was her only child, these her only grandchildren. There was one other thing she did have; it was a love for California. She had a brother living in Yuba City and had visited California many times. This woman had the most to lose yet was the most encouraging to us. It was a "GO"!

Harold started writing to Postmasters in target cities such as; Concord, Chico, Walnut Creek, Martinez, Marysville, and Yuba City to see if he could transfer there. He also put an ad in his Postal Union Magazine asking if anyone would want to trade jobs with him moving from California to St. Louis. Sometimes this could be done but finding a mutual carrier to trade with was not easy.

At this same time in 1962 Silicon Valley was starting to boom with electronics jobs which paid much higher wages than working for the Post Office. Also, engineers and other high tech workers were moving there from all over the country. The population of Santa Clara Valley was growing very fast, orchards were being torn down for housing, and there was a definite need for more letter-carriers. We had just about given up hope of hearing from anyone when Harold got a call from the Postmaster of Sunnyvale, CA who did a phone interview and asked if he was willing to move to Sunnyvale.

The phone call came on a Thursday afternoon in October and on Sunday Harold was on TWA headed to his new job in California having borrowed $200 from his mother to pay for the fare. My mother came to sit with the children while I drove him to the airport. As Harold was walking down our front steps toward the car, my mother stood at the top and had one more thing to say to her son-in-law. "You've got a lot to learn!" She was not a "happy camper" and these words were remembered by us on quite a few occasions.

On Friday night before he left, our friends and neighbors did something loving and spectacular. They came walking up the street carrying scrub buckets filled with ice and champagne bottles. Stopping outside our house they began singing as loud as they could, "CALIFORNIA HERE I COME!". It would be hard leaving such friends. Would we be living in our new city and neighborhood with another set of neighbors much like the ones to which we were bidding farewell? Unfortunately these high standards would not be met.

My work was now beginning. There was a house to sell, furniture to be shipped, a car to be sent, and five children under the age of 9 to be prepared for a big adventure. Needless to say there were many people, including family, who thought we were crazy and could not fathom anyone doing this. You would have thought we were taking a wagon train to the Wild West. The people we knew and some we didn't, thought all Californians were wild and crazy.

Fortunately the house sold within 2 weeks with a secure sale in escrow. The people buying it had sold their house to the city of St. Louis due to a freeway that was going to be built across their property. The City agreed to have them purchase our home sooner than the City expected. Arrangements were made to have our car driven by a local concern who handles such things. The movers came and the five children and I were headed to California via train. It was before there was anything called AMTRAK. It was not only the first train ride for the children but was also my virgin trip via the rails.

We boarded on Monday evening November 3, 1962, the day before the infamous Gubernatorial election in California. It's the one in which Nixon lost the election giving his memorable speech including the words, "You won't have me to kick around anymore!".

We arrived in Oakland on Wednesday November 5, 1962 . Harold met us at the station in a rental car. Our car was still in route. He drove us over the the Bay Bridge and up to Skyline Drive across the top of the Santa Cruz mountains and down into the Santa Clara Valley. There was method to his madness! He assumed I would be disappointed with California the minute I landed here if I had to judge it by passing through Oakland. Thus, he decided that he would take the longer but scenic route down to our new city. It was good thinking on his part. I'm sure I might have thought that we really were crazy for moving to a place seen only in our hopeful visions and imagination, those coming from books, magazines, and New Years's Day TV. Who knows? For all we knew, the books we read might have been California propaganda.

For the next 3 weeks we lived in a motel until the escrows closed on both the house we were selling and the one we were buying. Housing was still affordable at that time. We sold a smaller home in St. Louis for $11,000 and purchased a much newer modern one for only $15,500. It had a fireplace, automatic dishwasher, orange, lemon, and palm trees; all of which were amenities we had never dreamed of possessing. Now it's almost impossible to think that homes could be that inexpensive especially in Silicon Valley. It appears the move did happen at an opportune time. Another couple of years and our dream would have been out of reach for us.

The neighbors, people, church, and school were totally different. In St. Louis there were no people of Mexican descent that I can recall, at least that I knew of. In our new neighborhood there was a mixture of people, descendants of families who were Mexican, Black, Japanese, Korean, etc. The neighborhood we lived in was no longer predominantly white Catholic. The people here came from all over the United States with many different backgrounds and religions. There were also a few rare ones that actually were native Californians.

In St. Louis if a person was of the Catholic faith, they automatically were able to send their children to a Catholic school. It was even expected. Here there was politics to be played to be able to have your children considered for enrollment in the Catholic School system. We were able to get one of our children enrolled only to learn that this divided the children in our family. After one year we decided on family unity and withdrew Peggy from St. Justin's Catholic School. She was happy to be back in school with her siblings and her siblings were glad to have her back with them. Once again our family was whole and unified.

Most of the big family traditions and get-togethers were left back in St. Louis. There would be no more joining in gatherings on the 4th of July with all the cousins, aunts, uncles, etc. There were no more Thanksgiving dinners at one of the grandmothers homes and no more Christmas celebrations spent with extended family and friends. We now lived a different life and would be lonely until we adjusted to our new situation.

Gradually new friends were made through church or school but in the neighborhood we were isolated. It was no longer the friendly neighborhood we left. People in the Midwest are known for their friendliness and hospitality. It made us wonder why all these people transplanted from the Midwest did not bring that attitude with them or maybe we just couldn't find them. The fences were made of redwood, tall and solid, separating back yards. No longer could we view our next door neighbors out working in their yards, mowing lawns, or hanging laundry on clothes lines to dry . In St. Louis if a person became lonely all one had to do was go outdoors and visit across the short, chain link fences. It was a form of therapy to chat with a neighbor, ask about their children, and help them when aid was needed. No longer would the neighbor men come running over when they heard Harold's horseshoes hit the metal pin with it's recognizable "ping". The solid 6ft. tall fences were a barrier that seemed to say, "Don't come here because you're not welcome". There definitely was a difference in our life now.

Time passes, people adapt to changes, and we did the same. It came to be that we wouldn't trade our life in California for our old one in the Midwest. It was a time for our family to grow in many ways. We learned tolerance for people with different views who came from different cultures. We enjoyed weather that was more even in temperature. Violent tornadoes were traded for the unpredictability of earthquakes. The one a person can see forming; the other happens in the flick of an eye.

Looking back we can see it was a bold move on our part. We took the chance and feel like we made a good choice. My ancestors, including my mother, came from Poland on small sailing ships starting in the 1850's. Harold's came from Ireland and Germany. They all took a much larger risk than we did and we are grateful to them. They bore hardships that I cannot even imagine. We had an adventure without the hardships although there were definite risks.

There is an old saying, "Nothing ventured, nothing gained!". We ventured, took a chance, risked the possibility of making a big mistake, but turned out reaping the rewards of our decision. We bet on ourselves and created a reality similar to the visions we had imagined back on that cold, dreary day in St. Louis.

In 1965 we were blessed with Tom, our sixth child. He became the first native Californian in our family.

Part of a memoir
Created by Jeannette Shields
November 7, 1999

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